The Rock-afire Explosion - History / Evolution
Early Animatronic Influences

Creative Engineering Inc of Orlando, FL was originally formed to begin production of a small car called the 'Jutta' that was able to get approx 90 miles on a gallon of gas. While trying to raise enough capital to put the Jutta into production, CEI (led by inventor Aaron Fechter), entered the market of designing and creating animated characters for the amusement park industry.

One of CEI's first audio-animatronic characters was named the Scab, and was presented at the 1976 IAAPA convention. The Scab was a talking head with four movements, and was sold to DJ's Oyster Bar in Tampa, FL. Another of CEI's original characters was Willie Wabbit who was sold to Mystery Fun House. He was placed in a display case at the Orlando International Airport, advertising to potential Mystery Fun House customers.

Within the next year, CEI began cranking out new animatronics including a talking deer head, Count Dracula, a fortune teller named Lazlo, a growing ghost that had a removable head, and perhaps the most influential character to date - Friendly Freddy. This was CEI's first full animated character, which was a guitar playing bear that sat on a stump.

Shortly thereafter, CEI began production on fully animated stage shows. By the spring of 1978, CEI had completed the Santa Claus Revue for Santa's Village in NH. Another early show was the Confederate Critter Show made for Magic World in TN. Also produced at this time was the Bear Country Jubilee (Four Season Bears) which sold to Morey's Pier in NJ. The Bear Country Jubilee is particularly notable because of its similarity to Walt Disney World's Country Bear Jamboree. It was even marketed as coming "straight from Orlando" a perhaps misleading, but ultimately true advertisement.

The Wolf Pack 5

In the summer of 1978 CEI began development of the Wolf Pack 5 stage show. Aaron Fechter came up with the concept after seeing a live performance in London of the Rocky Horror Picture Show. The Wolf Pack 5 consisted of five characters that played 50's style rock and roll music. The cast included the Wolfman, Fats Gorilla, Dingo Starr, Beach Bear, and Queenie. They made their debut at the 1978 IAAPA convention in Atlanta.

The Hard Luck Bears

At the 1979 IAAPA convention, CEI presented their new show, The Hard Luck Bears - a retrofitted, hillbilly themed version of the Bear Country Jubilee. The characters in this particular show were the band of brothers - Billy Wilbur (guitar), Billy Bill (piano), Billy Boy (drums), and Billy Bob (bass). Stage right had Pete and Repeat Thornsberry - brothers who worked at Smitty's Super Service Station; and stage left had Mama Granbags along with the Gooney Bird.

ShowBiz Pizza Place's pre-incorporation agreement was signed between Creative Engineering Incorporated and Topeka Inn Management in December, 1979. The plan was set in motion to utilize CEI's animation in the second ShowBiz Pizza Place, while the initial store located in the Antioch shopping center in Kansas City would utilize Pizza Time Theatre animation. However, in January of 1980 PTT makes its intentions known about a pending lawsuit over breach of contract, and CEI is forced to supply the animation for the 1st ShowBiz.

ShowBiz Pizza Place

The 1st Showbiz Pizza Place opened its doors on March 3, 1980. Since CEI already had the Wolf Pack 5 in stock, they decided to temporarily use this show until a custom show could be designed and produced. A few modifications were made to the Wolf Pack as they had previously existed, specifically to Queenie - she was transformed from a fox into a mouse named Mini Mozzarela. This was done at ShowBiz's request (they wanted a mouse character to go with the "pizza" theme of the restaurant). The original twelve-minute Wolf Pack show was divided up into 3 shorter segments and 3 new segments were also recorded, giving the "ShowBiz" Wolf Pack tape a total of 6 different shows. Custom intro and exit segments were also added with an offstage announcer introducing the Wolf Pack to ShowBiz guests.

The original ShowBiz Pizza Place also had an electronic theatre room (or "disco room" which it was commonly referred) that had a separate Wolfman character in it. A separate showtape containing ten different shows/skits were used with this secondary Wolfman.

CEI had set a target date of July 15, 1980 to have their custom animatronic show ready for the opening of the 2nd ShowBiz store. During the design of this new show, many suggestions were made by members of Topeka Inn Management. Bob Brock had suggested the possibility of using the Hard Luck Bears in ShowBiz. Rolfe Kennard suggested including Billy Bob (who was essentially Billy Wilbur from the Hard Luck Bears) into the Wolf Pack 5 by replacing Beach Bear onstage. In the end though, Aaron Fechter and his team of designers and engineers at CEI had the final say, and in July of 1980, the Rock-afire Explosion was born.

The Rock-afire Explosion (The Early Years)

The Rock-afire Explosion was essentially the combination of the Wolf Pack 5 and the Hard Luck Bears. The center stage contained the bulk of the Wolf Pack - Fatz (Fats) and Beach Bear returned very close to their original counterparts, Mini became Mitzi, and Dingo became Dook (Duke). Stage right contained the rest of the Wolf Pack - the Wolfman became Rolfe, and a fuzzy puppet named Earl was introduced.

Stage left was a very condensed version of the Hard Luck Bears. Billy Wilbur became Billy Bob, and the Gooney Bird became the Looney Bird. Smitty's Super Service Station and the Birthday Bird (who was a blackbird in the Hard Luck Bears) were also inherited.

In the beginning, the Rock-afire Explosion looked a little different than they did a few years down the road. Many of the early character masks were sculpted by Dave Thomas, one of CEI's artists, and the characters onstage had a more grotesque appearance. Their faces were heavily defined, with paint detailing that helped to emphasize the many facial wrinkles and creases. The characters, notably Billy Bob, had much heavier brows that were reminiscent of Disney's bears. Fatz originally had a lighter gray complexion, had protruding ears, and wore rings on his fingers. Mitzi wore pigtails without any visible bangs, and had blue and yellow pom-poms. Dook had a completely different outfit altogether, and Beach Bear's fur was gray and shaggy.

There were a few key differences in the stage props and surrounding characters as well. The earliest shows had an Owl character at the base of Dook's drums, and the Frog sat on Beach Bear's surfboard. The original "Tune Machine" organ had 4 legs and a grill in the front. The scripted "Rock-afire Explosion" logo had not been created yet, so the organ and sign behind Fatz had a much more primitive appearance (the explosion sign behind Fatz is actually attached to an artificial tree).

The Rock-afire Explosion (Standardized Appearance)

During the first few years the Rock-afire Explosion was still evolving. Different materials were tested and used (for instance, at one point Dook had gray fur), and things were altered where necessary for structural issues (a retrofit was made for Dook's hands and Beach Bear's legs) and character improvement (the removal of Beach Bear's blonde wig). Valences were also added to the stage, letting customers know immediately what all of the character's names were.

Another of CEI's artists, David "Billy Bob" Irvin, re-sculpted all of the characters faces - there exists 2-4 different faces for each character, each with mostly minor differences. By the time the final production of the Rock-afire was done in 1983, the characters appeared much friendlier than they did at first. Since CEI now had an entire team of employees, characters were made in groups of about 25, and everything became very standardized. With the exception of the few early stores that had some of the original props still around, every Rock-afire at ShowBiz Pizza Place was virtually the same.

The Rock-afire was also involved in several "promotions", some of which even included temporary changes to the stage. One of the earliest was the Colander Head Night promotion from March 1983 which introduced the concept of live employees interacting with the characters. Each of the characters (with the exception of Rolfe) all had custom colanders to wear. The Rock-afire also had a few temporary costume upgrades including scarves for Christmastime, and western wear for the Country tapes.

Second Generation Animatronics

One unfortunate aspect of the Rock-afire Explosion is the unrealized future that they may have had. As ShowBiz was in a dead-heat race competing against Pizza Time Theatre, production of the Rock-afire was at full tilt and money was flowing into CEI for the purpose of Research and Development. However all that ended fairly abruptly when the market started to collapse. Although ShowBiz didn't file for bankruptcy, as Pizza Time had to in 1984, R&D funds disappeared and production of the Rock-afire Explosion was completely halted. Many future projects were never implemented, or even completed.

Uncle Klunk / Santa was one of the last (and only) major alterations made to the show by CEI. For all intensive purposes, Klunk was a 2nd Generation character, which required a separate computer to run all of his assorted movements. Although Klunk received a mild public response, his underlying animatronic was quite sophisticated compared to any of the other Rock-afire characters.

Other characters had 2nd Generation prototypes in development while Klunk was being finalized. A new version of Mitzi was created that had new arm and hip movements. She had the ability to actually dance by swaying at the hips and bringing her arms in front of her body with smooth, sweeping movements. A new version of Beach Bear was planned that had the ability to stand up off of his surfboard, and big plans were made for the updated 2nd Generation version of Dook. The updated Dook had new arm and wrist movements, which gave him the ability to play a full set of drums. He could swivel at the waist, and play drums that surrounded him, raise his arms to hit crash cymbals above him, and even reach one arm across the other while playing. It is believed that eventually every character was slated to have a 2nd Generation model, or at the very least, some type of animation upgrades.

There were other projects that were developed by CEI's R&D team in the early 1980s. The Show Selector system was developed and tested in select ShowBiz restaurants - it allowed customers to select which shows they wanted to see by pressing buttons on a panel near the stage. Another "traveling" character, just like Uncle Klunk, was in production as well. The character was Paul McCartney of Beatles fame. The plan was to make him the most advanced animatronic ever designed. The work on the project was never fully completed, and never found its way into ShowBiz, however it did find new life years down the road. In the not so distant past, the Paul McCartney project became "Private Paul" - an animatronic sold to the US Army to test uniforms that soldiers wear into biological warfare.

ShowBiz Pizza Time's Influence

Almost immediately after ShowBiz merged with Pizza Time Theatre to form the new company ShowBiz Pizza Time Inc, CEI began to be pushed out of the production and development of the Rock-afire Explosion. ShowBiz learned how to program the data to operate the show, and quickly began producing their own. Best-of compilation were used through most of 1985 (a period where no new showtapes were produced by CEI) and between 1986 and 1987 ShowBiz produced most of the tapes, using voice actors they hired to sound reminiscent of the original CEI voices. Through a few sporadic offering by CEI (Liberty show, '86 Christmas, and '87 Homely for Christmas) they eventually regained the recording rights, however ShowBiz never gave back the programming rights.

Under ShowBiz's command, the Rock-afire Explosion began to get some bizarre upgrades. ShowBiz tested out a prototype "Magic" stage design with the hopes of creating a more coherent appearance to the stage. In 1986 they also introduced the Statue of Liberty to the show, temporarily taking the place of Rolfe & Earl during the weeks leading up to the 4th of July. Yogi Bear was test marketed in 1987 in the hopes of integrating a more recognized character into the Rock-afire show. Another side project created by ShowBiz was "Orwell - the character you control" which was an Uncle Klunk with cosmetics removed and could controlled by guests. They also tested using a cosmetically-altered Klunk in the game room, giving him a beard and a hillbilly appearance (the name of this character is not known).

The Mijjins

By the early 1990s the Rock-afire Explosion was being phased out of ShowBiz and CEI was making attempts to reinvent the Rock-afire Explosion. Around 1991 the first new style of character was created by one of CEI's employees, Chris Lanusse who had previously worked with miniature animation. He helped to bring the (now "classic") Rock-afire Explosion down in size. These smaller animatronic characters were nicknamed "Mijjins" by Aaron Fechter. Their first usage was with the show created in 1992 called, correctly enough, The Mijjins - a show containing 6 human characters, Billy Bob, Fatz, and the Mijjinator.

The New Rock-afire Explosion

The New Rock-afire Explosion was in the concept stages during 1992, as new character designs were developed. Around 1994-95 this new show was completed. It contained all the characters from the old show, with the exception of Rolfe & Earl. Billy Bob, Fatz, and Mitzi all occupied center stage; while Dook, Beach Bear, and Looney Bird were on the rotating side stages. The technology of the rotating stages and characters, along with synchronized programming was patented and dubbed "Danceatronics".

Despite the advancements and new technology that was created for the New Rock-afire Explosion, the updated show was never given the exposure it probably deserved. Relatively few customers purchased it, and of those who did, very few are left in operation today. The animatronics scene has seen a decline since it's dominance in the 1980s, and the New Rock-afire was introduced around the time the audio animatronic trend was fading out. Aspects of the Mijjin animatronic characters weren't entirely stable. A lot of work still needed to be done to prevent breakage that never got done. The New Rock-afire was not as reliable or structurally as sound as the Classic show and CEI didn't have the opportunity to fix that.

Online Influence / Epilogue

The Rock-afire Explosion was given a breath of new life via the internet in the late 1990s when fansites began to arise including the ShowBiz Pizza Page and - an active interest began in collecting, compiling, and archiving all things relating to the Rock-afire Explosion. A fan community arose during this time, and those with fond memories of their past experience with ShowBiz and Chuck E. Cheese have helped to keep the memories of the Rock-afire Explosion alive.

In 2007 the Rock-afire Explosion was programmed by fans to sing Ms. New Booty by Bubba Sparxxx. The video clip hit YouTube and went viral by being linked to by several websites. The online buzz created gathered the interest of many bloggers and even some major news/entertainment outlets. A documentary film titled "The Rock-afire Explosion" was released in Sept 2008, and the renaissance is currently ongoing. The Rock-afire Explosion is continuing to appear in pop culture, from music videos by MGMT (Electric Feel) and Kokayi (Roxtar), to the Adam Sandler film "Just Go With It".